‘No Lye: An American Beauty Story’ is a must-see Black hair documentary screening online at the SF

Black Film Fest now

by JR Valrey

“No Lye: An American Beauty Story” is one of the best documentaries that I have seen on Black history all of this year. It gives a definitive history of the Black hair care industry and how it paralleled Black political movements throughout a better part of the last century in the United States. It gives historical accounts of early Black entrepreneurs who were pioneers in the Black cosmetics trade as well as in the Black press, who later went on to create a lobbying group in Washington to advocate for their needs. 

“No Lye: An American Beauty Story” also talks about how the US government gave Revlon an unfair advantage over Johnson hair products, which is Black owned, by making the latter put a FDA warning label that informed people of a hazardous chemical, while the former contained the same chemical but did not have to use the label, making their product seem like it was safer. 

This 55-minute documentary by Bayer Mack is definitely a cinematic jewel in the rough. It explores territory and connections that have never been touched on film, describing the Black experience in this country. It is quite fascinating. Check out “No Lye: An American Beauty Story” online at the virtual-only San Francisco Black Film Festival, and you can get your tickets here, sfbff.org

JR Valrey: What originally inspired “No Lye: An American Beauty story”? How long did it take for you to complete from conception to pre-production?

Bayer Mack: I came of age during the 1980s. My grandmother still subscribed to Ebony and JET magazines and my bedroom wall was plastered with the “Beauties of the Week.” I’ve always been interested in finding out the story behind those publications, the products they advertised, and the beautiful Black women they featured.

“No Lye” took a little over a year from concept to completion, but I’d been thinking about it for some time. I’ve produced short videos on George E. Johnson Sr. (“Afro Sheen”), JET’s pin-up models and the Miss Black America pageant. “No Lye” brings it all together.

JR Valrey: When did the Black hair care industry start in the United States? And who were some of the Black architects of the industry?

Bayer Mack: The ethnic beauty industry began during the Reconstruction era after the end of the Civil War. There were so many people who contributed to the success of the ethnic beauty industry, but Garrett Morgan (innovation), Annie Malone (distribution) and Madame C.J. Walker (promotion) laid the foundation.

JR Valrey: Why did Black barbers in the beginning of the Black hair care industry refuse to serve Black people? What changed this dynamic?

Bayer Mack: Serving white men paid better and if you wanted to attract wealthy white customers, you honored the color line in the early days. White women – and the Great Depression – changed all that.

Johnson Products got caught using lye by the FDA and were mandated to put a consumer warning label on all products and ads stating the product uses a corrosive chemical, while Revlon, a white owned competitor which used the same chemical, was not mandated to put the label on its products.

JR Valrey: In “No Lye: An American Beauty story,” you gave the history behind such iconic Black styles as the “Konk,” “Marcel Wave Process,” “The Natural,” “The California Curl,” “The Jheri Curl,” and “Cornrows.” Can you describe the socio-political realities that Black people were going through when each style was in vogue?

Bayer Mack: “Konk” is short for “Kongolene,” which was a hair straightener for Black men. The “Marcel” was a fancier, modernized version of the “Konk.” When those styles were popular, the overall goal was “assimilation.”

The “Afro” and other natural styles were not only a rejection of those early styles, but of European beauty standards. The “jheri curl” was basically a processed Afro, and that pretty much defined the early to mid-1980s state of mind.

JR Valrey: One of the most interesting aspects of your film was how you connected the Black hair care industry to the Black press. Can you speak on this shared history?

Bayer Mack: The alliance between the Black-owned ethnic beauty companies and African-American publishers was crucial to the growth and survival of both as segregated industries. Beauty manufactures had the advertising dollars and Black publishers provided the audience. If Johnson Products Co. had not bought 30 pages of advertising in Essence, it wouldn’t have lasted a year.

JR Valrey: Can you speak on the significance of how Johnson Products got caught using lye by the FDA and were mandated to put a consumer warning label on all products and ads stating the product uses a corrosive chemical, while Revlon, a white owned competitor which used the same chemical, was not mandated to put the label on its products?

Bayer Mack: Johnson Products never recovered the market share it lost to Revlon. It ultimately went into decline for a combination of reasons, but that was a major setback.

JR Valrey: What role did Black actresses like Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier as well as musicians like Michael Jackson play in the selling of Black hair care products?

Bayer Mack: Every image of a celebrity is an advertisement for something. The public wants to wear the brands and styles their favorite “so and so” wears. That’s always been the case. We just call them “influencers” now.

JR Valrey: In 1978, Black cosmetics and hair care products exceeded a billion dollars in sales. What is significant about reaching that marker?

Bayer Mack: Hide your kids! Hide your wife! The Anglos are coming! And they’re backed by Wall Street!

JR Valrey: Who was Edward Gardener? And what role did he play in the election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor?

Bayer Mack: At that time, Chicago was still the mecca of the Black business world and the center of the Black beauty universe. Soft Sheen founder Edward Gardener was a major financial supporter and community organizer for Mayor Washington’s campaign. He organized all of the powerful Black families, businesses and institutions.

JR Valrey: Why in 1981 did Black cosmetic manufacturers create a lobbying group to represent their interests on Capitol Hill?

Bayer Mack: After the Johnson-Revlon episode, they wanted to have a voice in the “halls of power” and they were gradually losing the industry to white-owned beauty companies.

JR Valrey: What do you hope people get out of “No Lye: An American Beauty story” after they watch it?

Bayer Mack: For me, the film is a family album, a scrapbook, with beautiful old pictures of the loved ones you lost touch with. So … I hope it brings back good memories.

JR Valrey: Do you have any other films? How can people keep up with your work?

Bayer Mack: Yes. I produced a 2014 documentary on African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, called “The Czar of Black Hollywood,” and my company, Block Starz Music Television, produces a series of short biographies on YouTube, called “Profiles of African-American Success.”

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of the Black New World Journalists Society, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv.